Is fructose to blame for your love handles?
It’s the latest war on motorists – councils who charge drivers according to their vehicle’s emissions. And as this report reveals, you’ll need a degree in astrophysics to make sense of it
WITh the arrival of wintry days, I’ve developed crazy urges to eat sugary, carby comfort foods. This is clearly linked to the fact that the days are getting colder and shorter, and I crave sugar to boost my mood, but it might also be driven by an unconscious fear of going short of calories during the winter months.
Despite all the temptations leading up to Christmas, I do try to keep my sugary feasting to a minimum, because I know this is the path to an expanding waistline and type 2 diabetes. On top of that, there is mounting evidence for a new theory that it’s a particular ingredient in sugar that is a key factor driving our obesity crisis.
The idea that excess sugar can lead to weight gain is hardly novel. But the stuff we think of as ‘table sugar’ — the sweet white or brown stuff in your kitchen cupboard — is actually made up of two sugars: glucose and fructose.
Unless they’re made with artificial sweeteners, most cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks that you buy in the UK contain equal amounts of glucose and fructose (in the U.S., on the other hand, you’re far more likely to find that food or drink has been sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which, as the name implies, tends to contain more fructose than glucose).
For a long time fructose was thought of as ‘healthy’ sugar. That’s because it’s the main sugar in fruit and because it doesn’t make your blood sugar levels rise to anything like the same extent as glucose. And that is why people with diabetes are sometimes told they should switch to using fructose as a sweetener.
BUT it turns out that fructose, at least when consumed in large amounts, may have a dark side.
That’s according to scientists from the University of Colorado’s Anschutz School of Medicine in the U.S., in a paper published in the journal Obesity.
Based on their previous research into how fructose affects cells, they argue that fructose, unlike other sugars, triggers our metabolism to go into what they call ‘a low power mode’. This then leads to hunger and makes us lose control of our appetite, so we eat more (not just sugary foods), despite having eaten plenty.
Normally your food is broken down and absorbed by your gut, then converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — a compound that every cell in your body uses as its main energy source.
But the University of Colorado scientists claim that if you consume too much fructose, this suppresses the production of ATP. And when ATP levels start to fall, your brain — worried that its energy supply is at risk — triggers hunger signals, telling you to eat more. Which you do.
But because you are now eating far more than your body needs, you get fatter.
Further evidence that fructose may play a major role in obesity comes from earlier research, published in the prestigious science journal, Nature, in 2019. In this study, researchers from the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center divided mice into three groups: one group was put on a low-fat diet; the second on a high-fat diet; and the third, a high-fat diet with added fructose.
The mice with a fructose diet piled on far more fat, despite consuming the same number of calories as the other groups. This was because their villi — the tiny finger-like projections that line the small intestine ( in mice and humans) and help your body absorb the calories you eat — grew far longer.
The scientists suggested the longer villi meant the mice’s bodies were absorbing far more calories, so they grew fat.
Previous studies by the same team have also shown that feeding mice fructose encourages other cell growth, raising their risk of colorectal cancer.
As to why consuming fructose would have these effects, the scientists suggested it might have originated as a winter survival strategy.
Before the days of widely available and mass-manufactured food, the main source of fructose in the natural world was fruit. And most fruit becomes sweet and ripe during late summer and autumn.
So it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, that if your body is trying to get you ready for the long winter months ahead when food is scarce, then eating fructose (in the form of fruit) not only helps you absorb more energy to lay down as fat, but also helps to power your cells down (putting them into ‘low power mode’) so they burn less fuel.
But while this might be a useful survival strategy if you are a hibernating animal, such as a bear, it is not at all helpful in the modern age, when we can buy a packet of biscuits or order a takeaway whenever we get a little peckish.
The researchers involved in the Nature study were careful to stress that the problem doesn’t come from eating fructose-rich fruit, because it contains fibre (which, as well as being good for your gut, reduces any sugar spike) and other valuable plant compounds; it comes from the added sugar which we consume on a daily basis.
As Dr Marcus DaSilva Goncalves, an endocrinologist who ran the study, put it: ‘Fructose is nearly ubiquitous in modern diets, whether it comes from highfructose corn syrup, table sugar, or from natural foods like fruit. Fructose itself is not harmful, it’s a problem of overconsumption.’
Something to bear in mind when you are next tempted by a sugary treat: it’s the fructose that’s making you eat more.
HAD the Romans faced the same sort of challenges parking their chariots as day-tripper Simona Florea did with her diesel van earlier this week, one wonders if they would have bothered founding Bath in the first place.
Confronted with a giant sign littered with a jumble of words, symbols and numeric charts, the 41-year- old was completely confused and definitely unimpressed.
‘It makes no sense to me,’ says Mrs Florea, a nurse who was on a sightseeing trip to the city with her delivery-driver husband and four-yearold daughter. ‘Our vehicle takes up the same amount of space in the car park as others but we are getting charged different amounts.’
Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that all it required to park your car was to find a space and then the right change for the machine. Not any more.
Because across the country a new front has opened in the war against motorists. Not content with imposing charges to drive your car into a growing number of city centres, councils are now also targeting certain vehicle owners with increased parking fees, too.
And, worryingly, those in the firing line are often those who can least afford it.
Because the new system adopted by Bath and other councils charges motorists on a sliding scale based on their exhaust emissions, owners of electric cars are charged the least — while the owners of old petrol and diesel cars are hit the hardest.
While in Bath that will see some drivers paying almost 50 per cent, or 80p, more per hour, some London boroughs impose an eye watering £6.50 hourly parking surcharge for diesels.
It’s not just what many argue are unfair costs — but its complexity as well. The sliding scale of charges means that, for example, the Bath system now has a mind-boggling 198 separate tariffs covering the councilrun car parks.
These cover the length of stay — from one hour to 24 hours — and how much a specific vehicle would pay depending on seven emission bands or, where that information is not available, four engine sizes. A different fee is charged depending on whether the car is diesel or non-diesel, the latter category covering electric and petrol
Those using Bath’s council-owned car parks enter their registration details into one of the ticket machines. It then calculates the amount the driver needs to pay based on a vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions, in line with records held by the DVLA and used for road tax purposes.
Where no emissions rating is available, including all vehicles registered before 2001, the charge is based on engine capacity.
Anyone wanting to know in advance what they will pay would have to use their smartphone to scan a QR code on the car park’s sign that then links to a series of four different tables on the council’s website.
Councils — almost all of which are Labour or Liberal Democrat — claim the goal of all this categorising is to improve air quality.
‘The new charges aim to incentivise motorists with more polluting vehicles to use more sustainable alternatives when visiting the city centre, like Park and Ride, and encourage a shift to public transport, walking, wheeling [covering wheelchair users and those with mobility scooters or rollators] and cycling,’ is the way Bath’s Lib Dem-run council puts it.
But critics claim it represents a stealth tax which threatens to drive people away from towns and cities where businesses are already struggling because of lack of footfall.
Winchester City Council recently introduced a seven-fold increase in its Sunday parking charges on the basis that ‘air quality doesn’t care what day of the week it is’.
Outraged residents accused them of acting like a ‘Soviet politburo’ while killing off trade and deterring church-goers, forcing council bosses into a screeching U-turn.
There’s no sign of that in Bath, where this week visitors such as Mrs Florea and her husband Daniel were struggling to get to grips with the new system. ‘I’ve never seen this anywhere else, but I saw the sign which told me I might be charged more,’ he says. ‘I put my registration number into the machine but I’m not sure whether I have or haven’t been charged more. Either way, I’m not happy about it.’
Similarly perturbed was accountant Katie Dobson who was on holiday from Sheffield with her husband and two children, having travelled in her petrol two-litre SEAT Tarraco.
‘The charge was a bit of a surprise,’ the 46-year-old says. ‘It’s another tax on motorists.
‘There are some people who have no choice but to have the car they’ve got even if it does have higher emissions. They can’t afford to change it.’ It’s a point echoed by Hugh Bladon of the Alliance of British Drivers.
‘Very often the cars they are penalising are older cars that the population who are less well-off can’t afford to replace,’ he says. ‘ So what they are doing is penalising the poorest people in society.
‘Councils all over the country are desperate for money and they have got a hatred for anything to do with
‘A stealth tax that drives people away’
‘Sunday fees increased from £2.10 to £17’
cars, so they regard them as an easy target. But the more they do this the more they will kill the centres of cities and towns.
‘If I had a business in Bath I know what I would do — I would move it out of there as fast as possible.’
From Extinction Rebellion protesters bringing traffic to a grinding halt to ever- expanding clean-air zones, there can be no doubt that motorists are on the front line of the climate change battle.
But while many are keen to do their bit to help the environment by switching to ‘greener’ models, for those struggling during a cost- ofliving crisis the maths simply does not add up. Not only do electric vehicles cost up to a third more to purchase, the Government has removed many of the financial incentives that encouraged early-adopters to make the leap.
Now, instead of the ‘carrot’, motorists find themselves facing the ‘stick’ as councils target more polluting cars with a raft of new charges.
Most high profile of these are schemes that see vehicles entering cities facing daily charges based on their emissions.
In London, for example, motorists whose cars do not meet the required standards of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) face a £12.50 fee.
Other cities such as Bath, Birmingham and Bristol impose charges in Clean Air Zones (CAZ), again aiming to reduce air pollution by deterring drivers of older, more polluting vehicles from entering them.
Now the same approach is being extended to cover paid-for parking on streets and in council-controlled car parks.
The latest such scheme was launched in Bath in September.
This was despite a public consultation in which almost 70 per cent of the respondents said they did not support the proposal.
‘How do you expect struggling families to pay these charges? You are forcing them into even more poverty,’ read one response. ‘Not
everyone can afford new vehicles. Totally disgusting.’
Another read: ‘Air quality in Bath is fine, we’re a tiny town [city] with significantly less pollution than anywhere else already. Please focus your time elsewhere other than gentrification as there are many more significant issues in Bath such as drug abuse and homelessness.’
Not that public opposition deterred Bath & North East Somerset Council.
In a report by council officers it said such objections were not ‘unexpected’ and that parking was an ‘emotive subject’.
‘The council recognises the costof-living crisis and is sensitive to the current pressure on families,’ it stated. ‘However, we cannot ignore the need to act to progress measures which aim to improve air quality.’
It claimed that under the new charging structure, a third of car parkers will not have to pay more. And that of the remainder who will see a price rise, two-thirds of them will, on average, have to pay ‘only’ 11p an hour extra.
Interestingly, given Bath’s popularity with overseas tourists, because foreign vehicles are not registered with the DVLA they are automatically charged at the highest price for the chosen duration — even if fully electric.
The tariff paid by diesel car owners is the highest, with an hour’s charge for the most polluting diesel vehicles coming in at £2.50 an hour compared with £1.70 for a zero-emissions car.
It’s a particularly bitter pill for their owners to swallow. The last Labour government introduced tax breaks to encourage their purchase on the basis that they emitted less carbon dioxide than petrol-powered cars.
But it has now been shown that they emit other harmful pollutants, known as nitrogen oxides.
While Bath’s is the newest scheme to launch, in London the use of emission-linked parking charges is increasingly widespread.
In July, the Labour-run Royal Borough of Greenwich council introduced its own version, with the aim of ‘encouraging’ people to drive more environmentally friendly cars. It now costs three times more to park a high-polluting car than a zero-emission one.
In the London borough of Lewisham — also Labour — electric vehicles using its Blackheath Grove Car Park have a fixed tariff of £1.50 an hour. That compares with £4.40 an hour for the most polluting diesel.
Signage at this car park previously showed 130 possible tariffs available to motorists, prompting ridicule online after radio host Danny Baker highlighted it to his internet followers last year.
Signs have since been streamlined, with a fuller list available only to motorists who scan a QR code that takes them to the council’s website.
Meanwhile in Labour-run Lambeth, since May motorists with a diesel car face paying a surcharge of more than £4 per hour to park on the street in Waterloo, south London, with a maximum tariff of just over £13 per hour.
Amongst those bearing the brunt of such charges is 29-year-old Nick Fulton, a catering engineer who relies on his diesel Renault Kangoo van for work.
‘I use this van five days a week, 12 hours a day, and I’m driving with equipment all over London for my job,’ he says. ‘Work helps me claim some of the money, but I still take a step back sometimes and think, “How much?” when it comes to parking.
‘I hope something will change, but to me it seems like it’s all about making money rather than making the air cleaner. I think the English people will just pay it though. We’re all bark and no bite here and not likely to complain about it.’
But that’s not always the case — as councillors in Winchester recently discovered.
Although not emission-based, the charges they introduced were, again, designed to the background of self-imposed climate change targets.
In July the city council introduced new rates for all motorists, charging them the same on Sunday as for any other day of the week, as well as making them pay to park overnight for the first time.
It saw fees on a Sunday for more than four hours increase in some car parks from £2.10 to £17.
The move was introduced in an attempt to reduce pollution by ‘ helping to deliver the carbon neutrality plan’, which commits the council to delivering its services in a carbon-neutral way by next year.
But the changes were greeted with a wave of opposition from business owners, volunteers and worshippers at Winchester Cathedral, with one of the car parks affected just a few hundred yards from the seat of the historic diocese.
Among them was church-goer Olive Bramley who travels to the city from nearby Micheldever to attend an 8am service.
The new fee structure saw her pay a £3.30 overnight charge — because she was parking so early — as well as £1.80 to cover the first hour of the new day rate.
Incredulous, she wrote to the council to check the new parking charges were correct. When she was told they were, it was suggested she instead use a free car park a 15-minute walk away.
‘That’s quite a walk, not even necessarily for an old person, but for someone who finds walking hard,’ the 74-year-old says. ‘There’s no thinking going on, it’s “Let’s just get as much money as possible”.’
Faced with growing opposition, the council has now partially backtracked, reducing the overnight parking fee and introducing volunteer permits that give free parking to people who provide services to the community within the city centre.
A victory of sorts, albeit a small one. And one that is unlikely to stop other councils from continuing to target motorists in evermore cynical and baffling ways.